Beethoven's Piano Concertos 1 & 3
The drama of Beethoven transported into the intimate spaces of the Classical world.
The Australian Haydn Ensemble, acclaimed for their fresh and vibrant performances of the music of the Classical era, bring their deep knowledge of historical performance techniques to Beethoven’s first and third piano concertos to play them as they would have been first encountered by audiences of Beethoven’s own time: as chamber music, for a small ensemble that could comfortably fit into a private home. In an era without recordings, most music lovers discovered the works of the great composers not by hearing them, but by playing them. These arrangements by Australian scholar Vi King Lim are patterned on the hugely popular chamber editions of Beethoven and Mozart symphonies by London-dwelling Italians Cimador and Masi, which graced the libraries of every music-loving household at the turn of the 19th century.
Neal Peres Da Costa performs on a meticulously crafted replica of an 1819 fortepiano by Conrad Graf – maker of one of Beethoven’s own pianos.
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Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15
1. Allegro con brio
3. Rondo, Allegro scherzando
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37
1. Allegro con brio
3. Rondo, Allegro
Neal Peres Da Costa Fortepiano
Australian Haydn Ensemble
Skye McIntosh Artistic Director
“Neal Peres Da Costa’s recording of Beethoven’s First and Third Piano Concertos with the Australian Haydn Ensemble marks a new and exciting development in period-instrument performance of Beethoven’s music. It offers a highly persuasive combination of impressive musicianship and convincing historical research. During the past few decades, research has increasingly revealed a manifest discrepancy between early nineteenth-century practice and conventional modern responses (both on period and modern instruments) to Beethoven’s notation. This recording is remarkable not only for the pianist’s wonderfully free and fluent playing, but also for the excellent performance of the ensemble. Neal Peres Da Costa vividly brings to life well-documented performing practices, including tempo flexibility, classic tempo rubato, extemporary arpeggiation, and independence of the right and left hands, that have scarcely been attempted by other pianists, while the ensemble very convincingly engages with modern research into classical bow-strokes and articulation. These characteristics set their performances apart from all other recordings of early nineteenth-century repertoire known to me. Their divergences from conventional modern practice are so natural and spontaneous, however, that the listener is less conscious of stylistic difference than of musical conviction and eloquence.” Prof. Clive Brown, UK
Ear-witnesses report that Beethoven’s playing style was most individual, capricious, dramatic and sensitive, with vivid mood changes and shifts of tempo that underlined the rhetorical nature of his music. In this experimental recording, we reimagine Beethoven’s sound world in the Vienna of the turn of the nineteenth century, an era of political, social and artistic revolution, with major developments in instrument building, composition processes and form, and performance practice.
String instruments were in a state of transition, undergoing modifications that would allow increased sonic range and projection to accommodate larger concert spaces. Gut strings, some with metal windings, were still favoured for their characteristic warm and transparent timbre, but many string players were using transitional or Tourte-style bows, while cellists generally continued to play without end pins with the cello supported between the legs. Vibrato was used in an ornamental fashion to colour particular important or expressive notes, while portamento or audible sliding was beginning to be employed to enhance legato and or to preserve a uniform tonal shading for a melody by shifting up or down the same string instead of crossing strings. A predominantly on-the string legato bowing style was the norm with only occasional use of bounced bowings (spiccato and so on) for special effects.
During his life time Beethoven knew very well the latest styles of piano available in Vienna, London and Paris. Although, these were quite distinct in sound and feel, they were essentially wooden-framed and straight or parallel strung (sporting clarity across the entire range and especially in the bass), with a steadily increasing range (up to 6 octaves or a little more) to satisfy the needs of composers and pianists and the ever-experimental compositional features. Compared with the modern piano these instruments were lighter, and more transparent in sound with distinct tonal ranges due to stringing, hammer size and hammer coverings. This was the era of the travelling virtuoso who adapted to whatever instrument was available. For this recording we have had the wonderful fortune to use a beautiful replica of a Viennese-action instrument by Conrad Graf from 1819, made by Paul McNulty. Beethoven was well acquainted with and revered Graf’s pianos. The sonic capabilities of this instrument are simply delicious. The characteristic Viennese sound, with a quick decay, and light but penetrating tonal quality allows Beethoven’s music to come to life, to speak, to sing, to act, and to dance in ways that are difficult or impossible to achieve on a modern piano. Amongst the many revelations are the possibilities available to modify the tone through the various pedals. This particular Graf model has four pedals – a sustaining pedal that causes the dampers to lift off the strings, a genuine una chorda shift pedal which allows the hammers to hit one string instead of three (the effect is magically ethereal), and two moderator pedals (normal and double) which engage felt between the hammers and the strings creating creamy, velvety sounds.
Together, these pedals provide a range of colours that have enabled me to realise Beethoven’s dynamics, accents, and textures in ways that I had never imagined but that must have charmed, delighted and surprised audiences of his day. A predominantly legato touch (rather than non-legato) was becoming the norm in piano playing, apart from instances where the composer marked otherwise. Pianists, like clavichordists and harpsichordists, made regular and particular use of dislocation (separation of melody from accompaniment) and arpeggiation to emphasise important melody notes, to give accent and to create textural variation and agogic emphasis (emphasis by length). The written sources of the early nineteenth century make it abundantly clear that a highly arpeggiated style particularly in slower, and expressive movements or passages was de rigeur (despite not being marked by the composer).
Two practices really distinguish nineteenth-century performance from present-day classical music performance. The rest is the alteration of notated rhythms to enhance the underlying character and to give variation to repeated music. We can hear this well and alive in jazz and popular music forms but mainstream classical music performance still adheres very closely the composer’s text, a practice which would have seemed rather strange to Beethoven and his generation. A correct performance in which the notes were played more or less exactly as written was seen as the very first ingredient in learning to play correctly, but an artistic or beautiful performance required much more input from the performer, a point that is discussed in many of the pedagogical works of the period. The second practice is tempo modification (beyond those indicated in the score) was also considered to be of paramount importance in expressive performance. Tempo was altered (sometimes wildly) to enhance character, mood, crescendo and diminuendo, and very importantly to effect structural delineation.
Slurs signalled both smooth connection (legato) between notes and phrasing especially when they appeared over a few notes (two, three, and four)—an emphasis at the beginning of the slur with adecrease in sound at the end of slur including perhaps a shortening of the final note. Slurs over two notes of equal value were more often than not played in the pattern long-short, giving them an expressive lilt or swing. These performing practices and many others besides are well documented in a wide range of written sources and can still be heard in early recordings made at the turn of the twentieth century.
This recording represents many years of research and practical experimentation from 2013-2017 during this Beethoven Piano Concerto cycle with AHE. Through rehearsals, concerts, discussion, workshops and personal reaction we present here Beethoven’s works as we think he may have expected them to sound. Of course, we can never be sure, because we don't have recorded evidence.
But by bringing together the pieces of the complex jigsaw puzzle and using our artistic sensibilities, intuition and talent to fill in the gaps, we give you a glimpse of a different, rhetorical Beethoven, one which documents our artistic endeavour and inspiration in progress, artistic endeavour of which we are most proud.
Prof. Neal Peres Da Costa, University of Sydney